Today@Sam Article

The Environmental Impact Of Staying Home

April 21, 2020
SHSU Media Contact: Emily Binetti

Wozinthefield_squarePhysical classrooms and offices are empty. Roadways and sidewalks seem bare. With billions across the globe under stay-at-home measures, we have seen many unexpected results. As we celebrate Earth Day this week, it is timely to ask - what might it be doing to our environment?

Jeffrey R. Wozniak, associate professor in SHSU’s Department of Biological Sciences is an ecosystem ecologist. Today@Sam recently spoke with Wozniak (remotely) to learn more on some of the results scientists have discovered since most of the planet has been asked to stay home.

T@S: Have you found any new research suggesting that instructions to curb unnecessary travel are having a significant impact on air or water pollution?

Wozniak: Globally, there have been numerous reports of significant positive influences on air and water quality due to local lockdowns and travel restrictions. 

Many have seen the NASA images of China that clearly illustrated the pronounced decrease in air pollution – this effect was directly linked to the decrease in the consumption of fossil fuels.  When I first saw the China images, they were so remarkable, so amazing and I never thought that we would see that level of change occur around the globe. But, that is exactly what we have seen happen; the same phenomena occurring globally. France, India, US all are seeing this remarkable change in air quality. They are noticeable to citizens with their naked eye and also to scientists in the data.

The current images coming out of India are striking. There, locals are seeing the distant peaks of the Himalayan Mountains from their towns 200km away. Locals report that from these areas, they have not seen the mountains for decades.

More close to home in California’s Bay Area, researchers at The University of California Berkeley are reporting at least a 1/3 drop over air pollution levels from the same time a year ago. Their findings show that this decrease is in fact due to the decrease in travel and not other underlying environmental or seasonal anomalies.

While most of the visibly immediate changes to environmental conditions have been noted in the atmosphere, there are a few examples of similar changes in aquatic systems. Water clarity in Venice, Italy is remarkably better. The lack of tourism and boat traffic has lowered water column suspended sediments – the lack of physical movement in the water column is allowing the sediments to drop out of the water column, resulting in less turbid water. Locals claim to be able to see fish and the bottom of canals. Having visited Venice a few years ago, and now looking at the images of canal bottoms, submerged aquatic vegetation and schools of fish -- I am amazed at the increase in visibility; it is astonishing.

As a side note here - this cool website does a great job of showing the decrease in emissions at the global level and also for individual cities. (Fun to click around and see how/where the trends are the strongest).

T@S: Has the current health crisis created issues in climate change research?

Wozniak: I think a big impact on academic research will be the inability of researchers to get to their research sites. Personally, my research in estuarine ecology has been directly impacted. I have a grant to study the effects of human influences (freshwater inflows, etc.) and natural environmental drivers (drought, storm events, sea-level rise, etc.) on wetland’s at the Aransas National Wildlife refuge. For the last six years, I have lead a two-week June research expedition to study how estuarine conditions impact blue crab dynamics in the coastal ecosystems of ANWR. That trip has been canceled due to the pandemic. 

Not collecting data this year will leave a pronounced gap in our data set. Unfortunately, this is the case with many researchers who conduct field based research projects. Our inability to get to research sites, limited travel for collaborators from out of state, etc. all will have short and long-term negative effects on research efforts.

T@S: What is needed for us to take the right steps to put the environment first?

Wozniak: Nature does not need us, but we need nature. Ecologically, the planet would probably be a much better place if humans were gone. As we come out of this pandemic, it will be very interesting to see where we put our focus. Unfortunately, I suspect that focus is going to be on returning to consumption, returning to economic growth, returning to not putting nature first.

I always ask my students, what type of environmental event would it take to make us do these things, to take a different route to protect environmental goods and services; and global pandemic was never one of the ideas that would pop up, but the scenario that we have on our hands right now is forcing us to do it. We now have the ability to see what a world would look like, where the air clears, the water gets cleaner and you can start to visualize the effects of pollution.

Our grand challenge will be to recognize that this is in fact our grand challenge.




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